In this ambitious book, Roger Daniels attempts to trace the history of immigration in the United States from 1882 to the present day. It’s a huge task; I for one had no idea how huge it was until I started reading Guarding the Golden Door for my church’s book club. The massive scope of the book means that it is filled with valuable information, but it also means that the mere 328 pages (with only 268 pages making up the body of the book) are rather too jam-packed with facts and figures for the average reader.
There’s no doubt that I learned a lot from this book. Daniels explores so many facets of immigration that it’s hard to imagine the reader who wouldn’t learn something. He writes about how U.S. immigration policy has changed over the years, becoming more permissive and then less permissive and then back again. He explains the quota system, which set a limit on how many immigrants could come in from each country. The quotas were set to reflect the cultural make-up of the country at the time, although exceptions were made for immigrants from the western hemisphere as well as some others. He explains how different rules and guidelines were set for immigrants from different countries and in different circumstances, such as those seeking family reunification or asylum. And then he explains what effects the policies actually had. Tons and tons of information. To be honest, this book brought on a classic case of information overload.
As I was reading, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of information that I didn’t know how to absorb it. I do think that part of the problem was in the writing (a thought that was confirmed by some of the people in my book club). Daniels obviously knows his stuff, but he sometimes assumed too much knowledge on the part of the reader. His approach is generally chronological, but the discussion jumped around enough that I couldn’t always easily sort out which events happened first. Certainly, other scholars of immigration policy, or even U.S. history scholars, would be able to fill in the gaps, but a general reader like me could not.
But I think the larger problem for me was that the book simply covers too much, which got me thinking about the writing of nonfiction for the general reader. An overview may seem like a good idea for the generalist, but the trouble is that it’s hard to cover a big topic like immigration history in a small number of pages. It will either be too shallow or too jam-packed with information.
Guarding the Golden Door contains plenty of information, but it’s lacking the human element that can make history compelling. A single narrative about an immigrant may not give readers a sense of the scope of the issue, but it can make a bigger impact, especially if it is couched in a discussion that brings in some of the larger issues. Only rarely does Daniels mention actual individuals behind the numbers, and I needed to hear their voices.
This book might be very helpful for a class on immigration or as a reference to keep on the shelf, but it’s not really a great read.